Welcome to the Rye History blog

Welcome to the Rye History blog

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Hidden History: The Story of Slavery in Rye, NY. Part 4: The Slave Control Laws.

Under British rule, New York's colonial government adopted a wide variety of laws subjecting slaves to special restrictions, disqualifying them as witnesses against Whites, and legitimizing the complete control of masters over their slaves.  The slave system rested on naked force to restrain the normal human impulses for freedom.  

To reduce the risk of slave insurrection, most of the public controls were aimed at restricting communication among slaves.  As early as 1682, it was a misdemeanor, punishable by flogging, for more than four slaves to meet together on their own time.  In 1702, the number permitted to meet together was reduced to three, and in order to insure uniform enforcement, each town was required to maintain a "Negro whipper" to flog violators.  Thomas Ricket was appointed as "public whipper" in Rye 1739, followed by Samuel Bumpos in 1747.  A whipping post and public stocks stood in Rye's village green located close to Christ's Church, and a small stone building nearby was used to jail slaves who committed criminal offenses.

Minutes of Rye Town Meeting, dated April 3, 1739
Credit: Rye Town Records

After the 1712 slave revolt in Manhattan, the Provincial Assembly of New York organized the laws restricting the activities of slaves into the Black Codes.  The law authorized slave owners to punish a slave for his misdeeds at the owner's discretion, stopping short of death or dismemberment.  If, however, a slave was found guilty of murder, rape, arson, or assault, there were no limits to the harshness of the punishment.  The law also prohibited free Blacks from owning real property.  In 1730, the Assembly again amended the Black Codes making it a crime for any slave to possess a weapon and continued the prohibition on slaves meeting in groups of more than three.  Slaves were also prohibited from being on the streets after dark except with their master and from using the streets in a disorderly manner.    

The ever-present fear of insurrection was reflected in the harshness of the Black Codes.  Since the purpose of the law was to protect the White community by any means necessary, no matter how severe, a double standard of justice existed for Whites and slaves.  Slaves were seldom allowed out of prison on bail, and even minor offenses by slaves were punished severely.  Many criminal offenses that were not capital when committed by a White person were punishable by death when committed by a slave.  Offenses committed by slaves against Whites were relentlessly prosecuted and punished, while similar offenses by Whites against slaves were either ignored by the authorities or dismissed by the court.  Laws prohibiting testimony by a slave against a White person made it extremely difficult to obtain justice in cases involving both slaves and Whites.

When slaves were executed for their crimes, their owners were permitted to receive compensation from the colonial government.  In 1714, Issac Denham of Rye petitioned the Court of Special Sessions in Westchester County to receive 25 pounds in payment for the execution of his slave Primus "for his misdemeanors."  In 1719, Denham, along with Charles Foster, petitioned the Court for compensation for the execution of another slave.  The Court valued their slaves at 20 pounds each and ordered that payment be made to Denham and Foster.

All of these laws were premised on deep-seated notions of racial inequality and racial fear.  Corrosive insecurity was the price that every member of the community paid for slavery.  

Sources (in addition to those listed in Part 1):

Linder, D.O. (2013).  New York Slave Laws: Colonial Period.  Retrieved from http://law2.umkc.edu

Hidden History: The Story of Slavery in Rye, NY. Part 3: The Records of Christ's Church, Rye

The Rye Historical Society Archives contain an extraordinary book of the Christ's Church vestry minutes from 1710 to 1794.   Christ's Church, known as Grace Church during the pre-Revolutionary era, was part of the Church of England or the Anglican Church.  When the British assumed control of New York province, the charter given by the Duke of York in 1684 required that each town appoint a minister and maintain the minister through taxes levied on the inhabitants.  Initially, all Protestant churches were recognized by the provincial government, but when Col. Benjamin Fletcher arrived in 1692 to serve as governor, he aimed to make the Church of England the established church of the province.  In 1693, at Fletcher's request, the New York Assembly passed an act requiring that six Anglican ministers be hired in New York City and the surrounding counties, including one in Rye, and that the property owners in each community meet annually to choose ten vestrymen and two church wardens.

The residents of Rye met in 1694 or 1695 and elected their vestrymen and church wardens.  In the late 17th and 18th centuries, the function of the vestry was primarily secular rather than religious.  Their chief responsibilities were to provide for the minister's salary and to look after the poor.  In fact, until after the Revolutionary War, most of the Christ's Church vestrymen were probably Presbyterians or adherents of another Protestant faith.

The Christ's Church vestry minutes tell us much about views of 18th century Rye residents toward their slaves.  To fund the Church's activities, property holders were assessed a set amount for each acre of crop land, orchard, meadow, and pasture land that they owned, for their livestock, and for the number of "Negroes from 12 years to 50."  Each slave was assessed at 10 pounds, half the amount of “a good Mill."

Excerpt from Christ's Church Vestry Minutes, dated June 2, 1772
Credit: Rye Historical Society

Slaveholders were held responsible for the acts of their slaves, in the same way that they were held responsible for their livestock.  If a slave owner failed to care for his slaves, the church took action against the owner so that the slaves did not become a financial burden on the parish or a threat to the community.

The Christ’s Church minutes also show that the Church's ministers apparently were not philosophically or religiously opposed to slavery.  The minutes for January 24, 1726 include an agreement of the vestry to raise funds to pay "Mrs. Budd for her Negro's work 7 days at ye parish house."   The 1755 Census of Slaves indicates that Rev. Wetmore owned two male and one female slaves.

Excerpt from Christ's Church Vestry Minutes, dated January 24, 1736
Credit: Rye Historical Society

Slaves were allowed to attend church services, but were seated in a separate section of the sanctuary.  The minutes from 1792 describe in detail the process for raising funds to build a new church following the destruction of the earlier church building during the Revolutionary War.  The vestry sold parishioners subscriptions to pews and allocated the pews according to the amount each parishioner paid.  The minutes for March 28, 1792 reflect that the vestry decided "at their discretion, [to] set off three or four pews in some suitable part of the Church, for the use of Negroes."  The minutes include a floor plan of the Church showing that the pews reserved for the “Negroes" (pew numbers 41, 42, and 43 in the lower left of the floor plan below) were well separated from those pews reserved for contributing parishioners.

Excerpt from Christ's Church Vestry Minutes, dated March 28, 1792
Credit: Rye Historical Society

The Christ's Church Vital Records from 1790 through the 1820s likewise reveal much about the way in which slaves were perceived and identified by their masters.  Baptisms of slaves were recorded with only their first names and their master's name, such as "Mary, a black inft belonging to David Haight," or "Abraham, belonging to Captain Purdy."  Baptisms of White children, by contrast, were recorded with both their first and last names.  Marriages were similarly recorded with only the first names of the couple, such as the marriage of "Jack, belonging to Philemon Halsted, Jun’r, to Nanny, belonging to N. Penfield.”  When African slaves first arrived in the colonies, their owners generally renamed them, rejecting African names in favor of English, biblical, or classical names.  Seeking personal respect, slaves often adopted the last names of their masters.  Their masters, however, refused to recognize any last names, preferring to treat them as perpetual children and dependents.

We can also learn a great deal about slave life from the letters between the rectors of Christ's Church and their London supervisors (the "Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts").  During the period of British rule, the colonial authorities were strongly in favor of converting slaves to Christianity, both because it reassured Whites of their own moral superiority and because they equated Christianity with civil stability.  The Anglican Church in London directed Rev. Wetmore at Christ's Church to provide religious instruction to the local slaves.  In a letter dated February 20, 1727-28, Rev. James Wetmore of Rye reported to the Secretary of the Society that:  "The number of Negroes in the parish is about one hundred.  Since Mr. Cleator has been blind, and unable to teach school, he has taken pains with the negroes, so many as their masters would allow to come.  But of late, they have left coming altogether."  The "dissenters" from the Anglican Church -- largely Presbyterians and Quakers -- were opposed to any form of education provided by the Church of England.  They were also deeply suspicious of any activities affecting their slaves over which they didn't have direct personal control.

These records from Christ's Church provide a window into the everyday lives of Rye's slaves.  As with Ezekiel Halsted's will that we examined in the first blog post in this series and the sale agreements in the second blog post, we see that slaves were treated like any other item of personal property, indistinguishable from livestock, furniture, and tools.  Their masters determined their names, their religious lives, and their meagre education.  Churches at that time, like other political and social institutions, perpetuated a system that deprived men and women of their basic human rights and their dignity. 

Sources (in addition to those listed in Part 1):

Boulton, R. (1855).  History of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the County of Westchester from its foundation A.D. 1693 to A.D. 1853.  New York, NY: Stanford & Swords.

Field, E. (2001).  Blessed by God.  The history of Christ’s Church Rye, New York, 1695-2000.  West Kennebunk, Maine: Phoenix Publishing. 

Hidden History: The Story of Slavery in Rye, NY. Part 2: The Economics of Slavery.

From the earliest Dutch settlement until four decades after the end of the Revolutionary War, slavery was essential to the day-to-day survival and economic life of the colonial North.  

In 1621, the government of Holland granted the Dutch West India Company the territory stretching from Manhattan to Albany along both sides of the Hudson River.  The colony, named New Netherland, was conceived as a private business venture to exploit the North American trade in animal fur.  From the very outset, the Dutch settlers encountered an acute scarcity of agricultural labor.  The West India Company had no interest in investing any more in labor or infrastructure than was necessary to maintain the enormously profitable fur trade.  The English settlements in the New World relied heavily on indentured servants, young men and sometimes women who agreed to work without wages for a fixed period of time, usually five or six years, in return for passage to the colonies and room and board.  With Holland's relative prosperity, however, Dutch laborers had little interest in serving as indentured servants or in making the long and dangerous journey to this strange new land.  As a result, in 1626, the West India Company imported the first 11 African slaves to work on farms, public buildings, and military works.  Governor Peter Stuyvesant (whose descendants many generations later lived in Rye) was the largest private owner of slaves, having 40 enslaved African men and women.  Stuyvesant supervised what was probably the colony's first auction of human beings in 1660, and New Amsterdam soon became a major center of slave trading.

After 1640, the fur trade in the colony declined in importance.  Agriculture began to expand, new lands were brought under cultivation, and settlers took up farming with a view to staying permanently.  Slaves facilitated this transition by providing inexpensive labor that made farming attractive and profitable.  This was particularly true in the farming areas in Westchester County and the Hudson River Valley where the shortage of free workers was acute. The demand was so great in these areas that some planters offered to buy "any suitable blacks available."

By 1664 when the British took control of New Netherland and renamed it New York, slavery was firmly entrenched in Manhattan and the surrounding counties.  Roughly ten percent of the population of Manhattan was of African origin in 1664, nearly all of whom were enslaved.  The Duke of York, who ruled the territory, was determined to heighten the colony's reliance on slave labor and to make Manhattan the chief North American slave port.

Even merchants and farmers who didn't participate directly in the slave trade benefitted from it.  Farmers, in particular, profited from feeding the increasingly large numbers of Africans in the West Indies and providing the materials to operate the vast sugar plantations.  In the classic shape of the Triangle Trade, New York and the other northern colonies sent food, livestock, and wood to West Indian sugar plantations.  Sugar was then shipped back north, probably in barrels made in New York of New England wood.  Northern distilleries turned the molasses into rum to trade in Africa for new slaves who, in turn, were shipped to the West Indies plantations.  The sugar planters in the West Indies imported most of what they needed from the northern colonies and Europe so that they could devote all of their land to the sugar crop.  Even small farmers like those in Rye could load a few bags of flour or garden crops onto a dock and become part of this global venture.  Many of the farmers throughout rural Westchester County used slave labor to produce the products that supplied the sugar plantations.

Slaves were legally the property of their owners.  Their owners had the right to lend, lease, sell, or otherwise dispose of them at any time for any reason.  Slavery, in essence, transformed human beings into commodities that were to be bought and sold for profit.  The American colonists accepted hierarchy, injustice, and exploitation as a normal condition of human life, and differences in skin color and religion made it easier for the colonists to justify the enslavement of Africans.  Since most slave owners in Rye were small farmers, they bought and sold slaves according to their economic need.  Slaves were sold to liquidate estates for the benefit of heirs, to satisfy the claims of creditors, to reduce costs during the winter months or an economic downturn, or just to earn a profit.

The Rye Historical Society's Archives and the Rye Town Records contain several examples of slave transactions.  The earliest record of a slave sale in Rye dates from 1689 when James Mott sold his 14 year old slave Jack to Humphrey Underhill.  In 1764, the executor of Nathan Brown's estate sold his possessions, including his two slaves, to settle his estate.  Twenty years later, David Pugsley, in order to raise funds to satisfy his debts, sold his horses, cows, and all of his household goods to William Vail.  In addition to his furniture, tools, linens, tableware, casks of meat and tubs of butter, Pugsley sold "one Negro wench goes by the Name of Aunt Lill" and "one Negro girl named Grace about fourteen years of Age."

Sale of Slave by James Mott, dated July 4, 1689
Credit: Rye Town Records

Excerpt from Sale of Assets of the Personal Estate of Nathan Brown, 1764
Credit: Rye Historical Society

Excerpt from Sale Agreement between David Pugsley and William Vail, dated March 29, 1785
Credit: Rye Historical Society

Sometimes, children were placed into slavery or into long periods of indentured servitude because their parents (usually their single mothers) were unable to provide for them.  On August 14, 1708, Mary Wood, a White servant to the Episcopal minister George Muirson and his wife, agreed to give over her mixed race, illegitimate child to Jonathan Hart of Rye.  Mary agreed that her son would serve the Harts for the rest of his life.  To secure her performance, she posted a bond of 40 pounds (the equivalent today of over $16,000).  Similarly, on February 4, 1771, David and Mary Lane agreed to take in a mixed race "Mongrel" girl, Marget, left in their care by her unnamed mother.  Marget was required to serve the Lanes for more than 17 years.  During that time, she was not to "play with cards, dice tables, nor any other unlawful games" nor "absent herself day nor night without leave."  At the end of her service, the Lanes were to give her one good suit of clothes, in addition to her working clothes. 

Indenture Agreement by Mary Wood, dated August 14, 1708
Credit: Rye Town Records

These records reveal in stark terms the harsh realities of slavery.  Slaves were bought and sold like any other item of personal property and every element of their daily lives was controlled by their masters.  Parents might be separated from their children by economic necessity and those children given over to a life of servitude.  Little thought was given to the slaves' well-being or to that of their families.  We are left to wonder how the people of Rye came to accept, perpetuate, and justify a system based on exploitation and dehumanization.

Sources (in addition to those listed in Part 1):

Hodges, G.R. (1999).  Root & branch: African Americans in New York & East Jersey 1613-1863.  Chapel Hill, N.C.: The University of North Carolina Press.

Lepore, J. (2005).  The tightening vise: Slavery and freedom in British New York.  In I. Berlin & L. Harris (Eds.), Slavery in New York (pp. 57-91).  New York, NY: The New Press.

Taylor, A.  (2013).  The internal enemy: Slavery and war in Virginia 1772-1832.  New York: W.W. Norton & Company. 

Monday, March 17, 2014

Hidden History: The Story of Slavery in Rye, NY. Part 1: The Halsted Family and Their Slaves.

The story of slavery in the South is all too well known.  Images of plantations where overseers brandished whips over slaves picking cotton are deeply embedded in our national conscience.  The story of slavery in the North, however, has largely been hidden from public view.  The unmistakable truth is that slavery was a national phenomenon, and the North -- including Rye -- shared in the wealth it created and the oppression it required.  

From the earliest Dutch settlement until four decades after the end of the Revolutionary War, slavery was essential to the day-to-day survival and economic life of the colonial North.  No part of the North relied more heavily on slavery than Manhattan and the surrounding area, including Rye.  The earliest mention of slavery in Rye dates from 1689 when Jacob Pearce, then the owner of the Square House, left as part of his estate "a negro woman called by the name of Rose."  A census taken in 1712 lists 18 slaves in Rye Town out of a total population of 516.  With the rapid growth in population during the first half of the 18th century, the number of slaves in Rye had increased to 117 by mid century.  In 1790, the year of the first federal census, there were 123 slaves in Rye out of a total population of 986 -- nearly 12.5 percent.  At the beginning of the 19th century, nearly every family owned one African American "hand" or more.

Who were these families, and what do we know about the slaves that they owned?  The Rye Historical Society's archives and the records at the Rye Town offices tell us that slavery was a wholly unremarkable institution in 17th and 18th century Rye.  Slaves in Rye were viewed like tangible property -- equivalent to cattle, horses, farming utensils, and furniture.  They were bought and sold to suit the commercial purposes of their owners, with little thought given to the slave's well-being or that of his or her family.  Slaves had no identity, other than that conferred on them by their owners.  They had no family names (except for those of their owners), and their first names were Christian names given to them upon their arrival from Africa or the Caribbean islands.  Their education was spotty, confined to religious education in preparation for conversion to Christianity.  Although many slaves in the North were treated humanely, cruelty and harsh punishment also abounded.  Deep-seated notions of racial inferiority and racial discrimination permeated all aspects of life.

One Rye family, the Halsteds, left behind several important clues to their slave-holding history. The Halsted family moved to Rye from New Rochelle and purchased the Knapp House, today the oldest house in Westchester County, in 1769.  The Halsteds were among the largest and wealthiest landowners in the area, acquiring over time a total of 317 acres in Rye and Harrison.  They kept oxen, cows, cattle, horses, and geldings, and likely grew wheat for sale as flour, as well as rye and corn.  The 1790 Federal Census records show that the Halsteds owned seven slaves and were some of the largest slaveholders in Rye.  Ezekiel Halsted's Last Will and Testament that he signed on April 15, 1800 (see below) tells us a great deal about how the Halsteds viewed their slaves.  Ezekiel left his son Philemon and Philemon's heirs "forever all my Negro slaves," along with all of his stock of cattle, horses, and farming implements.  Ezekiel left his wife "my indented Negro girl Hannah."  When Ezekiel died on February 20, 1805, the inventory of his estate included "the time of a black girl named Hannah" valued at 30 pounds, "one Negro woman named Rose" valued at 100 pounds, and "one Negro boy named Jack" valued at 150 pounds.  The inventory also listed a looking glass and three window curtains with a value of 25 pounds, a cupboard and linens at 100 pounds, and one horse and chair at 150 pounds.

Last Will and Testament of Ezekiel Halsted, April 15, 1800
Credit: Rye Historical Society

There is no information in the Rye Historical Society Archives on the living quarters for the Halsted slaves.  Unlike the large plantations in the South or nearby Philipsburg Manor, slaves in Rye would have lived in close proximity to their masters, most likely either in attics or in separate small kitchen buildings.  In these one-room structures, which have been described as “containers for human chattel,” slaves lived and prepared meals for their masters.  The small number of slaves in each household and the geographic distance between Westchester’s farms resulted in a greater connection between slave and master than on large southern plantations.  Some slaves even shared meals with their owners.  Sarah Kemble Knight, a Boston woman who wrote a diary of her travels from Boston to New York in 1704 (which included a stop in Rye), commented disdainfully on the custom of masters allowing slaves “to sit at table with them (as they say to save time), and into the dish goes the black hoof as freely as the white hand.” 

We also know little about the family lives of the Halsted slaves.  New York State law did not formally recognize slave marriages until 1809, but many slave owners, troubled by the destructive effects of slavery on the slave family, encouraged civil or religious ceremonies to upgrade the significance of the marital relationship.  Records kept by Christ’s Church in Rye note the marriages of slaves and free Blacks beginning in 1791.  On July 28, 1805, not long after Ezekiel Halsted's death, Jack, now owned by Philemon, married another slave, Nanny who belonged to Nathaniel Penfield, then owner of the Square House.  Philemon's slave Rose was married on June 5, 1808 to another slave named Jack who was owned by the Delaney family.  Some slaves lived together as a family with both parents and their children in the same household.  That was more likely to occur, however, in Westchester’s large manors where owners had several slaves of both sexes.  In Rye, given the dispersed nature of the slave population, it is more likely that slave families were divided among several owners and were only able to see each other on their limited free time, and then only with their owner’s permission.

Slavery was outlawed in New York in 1827, but many families in Rye began freeing their slaves several decades earlier.  A year before he died in 1805, Ezekiel Halsted freed his slave Duke.  Philemon freed Rose in 1809 when she was 36 and Philemon's son freed another family slave in 1810.  The legal regulation of manumission varied from town to town, but the crux of all of the regulations prevented masters from abandoning aged or infirm slaves under the pretext of freeing them.  "Overseers of the Poor" appointed by each town to assume responsibility for indigent freedman had to approve the manumission of each slave.  In Rye, the manumission process required that the Overseers of the Poor examine the slave, determine his or her approximate age, and determine whether he or she was of a "good and sound” constitution or “of sufficient ability to provide for himself.” The slaveowner then signed a formal document setting the slave free. 

Ezekiel Halsted's Manumission of Duke, dated August 17, 1804
Credit: Rye Town Records

We will never know precisely what motivated the Halsteds to free their slaves, but we do know that the Halsted family played a prominent role in establishing the Methodist Church in Rye, and the Methodist movement was strongly anti-slavery.  Unlike most churches that routinely segregated  Black worshippers, the Methodists welcomed Blacks as full participants.  Many years later, on the eve of the Civil War, Underhill Halsted gave land in the town of Rye for the African Cemetery.  Today, the African Cemetery is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and contains the gravesides of African American Civil War veterans and the descendants of many freed slaves from Rye.


Baird, C. (1871).  Chronicle of a Border Town.  History of Rye 1660-1870.  New York, NY: Anson D.F. Randolph and Company.  Reprinted by Harbor Hill Books, Harrison, NY, 1974.

Burrows, E. & Wallace, M. (1999).  Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898.  New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Davis, T.J. (1987).  Westchester’s Early African Roots.  The Westchester Historian, 63(1), 4-8.

Department of Commerce and Labor (1908).  First Census of the United States.  1790.  New York.  Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office.

Di Bonaventura, A. (2013).  For Adam’s Sake: A Family Saga in Colonial New England.  New York, NY: Liveright Publishing Corporation.

Farrow, A., Lang, J., & Frank, J.  (2005).  Complicity: How the North Promoted, Prolonged, and Profited from Slavery.  New York, NY: Ballantine Books.

Harris, L. (2004).  Slavery, Emancipation, and Class Formation in Colonial and Early National New York City.  Journal of Urban History 30(3), 339-359.

McManus, E. (1966).  A History of Negro Slavery in New York.  Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.

Morris, R.B. (1965).  Foreword.  In E.J. McManus (1966), A History of Negro Slavery in New York.  Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.

O’Callaghan, E.B. (1850).  The Documentary History of the State of New York.  Albany, NY: Weed, Parsons & Co. 

Rye Historical Society (2004).  Walk Old Mill-Town.  A Stroll through Rye’s Past.  Rye, NY: Rye Historical Society.

Rye Historical Society (2011).  A tale of Two Cemeteries: Greenwood Union & African Cemeteries.  Rye, NY: Rye Historical Society.

Sherman, T. (1906).  Vital Records of Christ’s Church at Rye, Westchester County, New York. [Privately published].

Singer, A. (2008).  New York and Slavery: Time to Teach the Truth.  Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Vlach, J.M. (2005).  Slave Housing in New York’s Countryside.  In I. Berlin & L. Harris (Eds.), Slavery in New York (pp. 72-73).  New York, NY: The New Press.


Saturday, January 15, 2011

Honoring Dr. Martin Luther King

As we approach Martin Luther King Day, and in the wake of the tragic shootings in Tucson, I read King's acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize given in Oslo on December 10, 1964.  His faith in America, delivered against the background of the struggles in Birmingham, Alabama and Philadelphia, Mississippi, resonates as much today as it did in 1964.
I accept this award today with an abiding faith in America and an audacious faith in the future of mankind.  I refuse to accept despair as the final response to the ambiguities of history.  I refuse to accept the idea that the "isness" of man's present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal "oughtness" that forever confronts him.
... I accept this award in the spirit of a curator of some precious heirloom which he holds in trust for its true owners -- all those to whom beauty is truth and truth beauty -- and in whose eyes the beauty of genuine brotherhood and peace is more precious than diamonds or silver or gold.
Powerful historical figures like Dr. King help provide the perspective that we need to make sense of the present.  And in some very small way, we are all curators of precious heirlooms that we hold in trust for future generations.  Bill Tramposch, the Executive Director of Historic Nantucket, wrote a wonderful introduction to the current issue of Historic Nantucket in which he observed that museums and historical societies "are the cultural keels for our ships of state.  They bring us together; and they help us to stand and face the great possibilities we have to play an active and informed part in determining our future.... They nurture our tolerance; they help us to celebrate our differences; and they prepare us to adapt to ever-uncertain times by reacquainting us with life's constraints."

As we honor Dr. King's legacy, let us consider how powerfully his words spoken 47 years ago still speak to us today.  To borrow again from Bill Tramposch, in a world that might seem without order or sense, knowing where we've been will provide the perspective and understanding to make decisions today.  Our heritage gives us the reassurance that life will go on and that this "great experiment" that is our vibrant democracy will endure.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Exploring the Art of Lauren Ford

Christmas is an appropriate time to explore the art of Lauren Ford, a well-known painter who lived in the Knapp House in the 1920's and 1930's, since her paintings were frequently used for Christmas cards.  The information provided below is taken from Donald Reynolds' comprehensive catalog, "The Art of Lauren Ford," that accompanied the Rye Historical Society's 1982-83 exhibit of her work.

Lauren Ford was born in NYC on January 23, 1891, the daughter of Simeon Ford and Julia Ellsworth Ford.  Simeon was co-owner of the fashionable Grand Union Hotel opposite Grand Central Station.  The family lived on West 74th Street and also owned a 48 room Victorian "cottage"on Forest Ave. near the present Forest Cove.  Lauren's mother Julia was a celebrated author of children's books and films and a patron of the arts.  At her "salon" on West 74th St., she hosted such famous and diverse figures as William Butler Yeats, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Kahlil Gibran, Isadora Duncan, Madame Chiang Kaishek and the socialist Norman Thomas.

Simeon bought the Knapp House in 1906 as a wedding gift for his son Ellsworth who was also a painter specializing in marine art.  When Ellsworth lived at the Knapp House, he added an artist's studio to the back, depicted in this lovely small painting done by Lauren. 

The back of the painting contains the following description written by Lauren: "This little girl is Lauren my grand baby for whom the little book was made.  The picture of me is by Gino Mangravite.  It is in the studio because he was making it there.  The horse is named horse and belonged to all of us when we were little.  The doll's name is Rinjinia and the Bunny is dear rabbit." 

The view in the painting is from the artist's studio, now the archives of the Rye Historical Society, looking into the reading room.  The same corner cabinet is still in use today, looking just as it did when Lauren made her charming painting.

Lauren was named after an uncle who was a portrait painter and who lived in an old chateau in Brittany.  When Lauren was just 9, Julia sent her to live with her Uncle Lauren.  She subsequently studied in Paris and at the Art Students League in New York where her teachers included James Abbott McNeill Whistler. 

During the 1920's, Lauren became deeply involved in the Monastery of Solesmes, a leading center for the revival of ecclesiastical art and Gregorian chant located in the western part of France south of Brittany.  Here, Lauren converted to the Catholic faith and was accepted as an Oblate of St. Benedict.  Lauren loved living in the countryside and developed a keen observation of nature.  (As an aside, while living in Rye, she owned a flower shop on Purchase Street, and her brother Ellsworth operated the greenhouses on their Knapp House property that eventually became J.B. Rich Nursery.)  Her love of flowers and of medieval tapestries influenced her art and her unique primitive style, which can be seen in the painting above.  In 1926, Lauren (with the help of her mother) had a one-woman show at the Feragil Gallery on 57th Street.  Note that a sticker from this gallery appears on the painting above.

Following Simeon's death in 1933, Lauren bought a farm near Bethlehem, CT which she named The Sheepfold, inspired by biblical texts.  There, she raised sheep, built a studio and a chapel and enlarged the house to accommodate her adopted daughter Dora (mother of the "grand baby" Lauren shown in the painting).  In the 1930's and 1940's, Lauren's art became increasingly religious, with many paintings of the Nativity, angels, the Holy Family and saints.  Typical of her work during this period is this drawing of an "Adoring Angel."

In 1946, Lauren's life took a totally unexpected direction when two members of the Benedictine Abbey at Jouarre, France were introduced to Lauren.  They were looking for a place to found an abbey in the U.S. and, through a mutual friend, found their way to The Sheepfold.  Lauren's neighbor gave Mother Benedict 50 acres in Bethlehem.  Soon, more nuns arrived and they set about building the Abbey of Regina Laudis which today is a vibrant community of nuns who keep the chant tradition alive.  The Abbey continues to print and sell Christmas cards today with images created by Lauren Ford.  When Lauren died, she left The Sheepfold to the Abbey.  The nuns still raise the sheep, tend the land and teach painting, pottery and printmaking in Lauren Ford's studio.

The story of Lauren Ford and Regina Laudis was captured by Clare Boothe Luce who wrote the book for the movie "Come to the Stable" co-starring Celeste Holm, Loretta Young and Elsa Lanchester playing the role of Lauren.  Celeste Holm received an Academy Award nomination for her role, and the movie is still available today.

In its Christmas issue of 1944, Life Magazine featured a portfolio of Lauren Ford's religious paintings and said the following of her art: "Once in every generation of painters ever since the first story of Christ was told in pictures, one artist has emerged who can tell the ancient story better than any other contemporary.  Today, in the United States, Lauren Ford is such a painter."
After a brief illness, Lauren died on August 30, 1973, at the age of 82 in Waterbury, CT.  She is buried in Waterbury under a simple headstone next to her "grand baby" Lauren Coryelle Lassauze.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Why Save Rye Playland?

With the possibility of major changes to Rye Playland looming, we went back to our 2009 historic walking tour of Playland and Rye Town Park to take another look at Playland's long and storied history.  Here's why the historic structures and Playland should be saved.

Playland was built by the Westchester County Parks Commission between Labor Day 1927 and May 1928!  It's amazing to think of 1,000 workers demolishing the existing amusement park, clearing marshlands and vacant land and building the new park, all in just 9 months.  Here's a picture of workers building the famous Dragon Coaster.

Playland was the first totally planned amusement park in the U.S. and the first amusement park specifically designed for automobile access.  Before Playland, patrons typically arrived at Rye's beaches and amusement parks by trolley, ferry boat or bus.  Playland's car parks could accommodate 10,000 cars, which explains how it had 300,000 visitors during its opening weekend in 1928.  Here's what the car parks might have looked like on that very busy weekend.

Playland is also famous for its music tower -- the first amusement park to have music electronically broadcast throughout the park (perhaps not such a popular feature with today's nearby Rye residents....)

Playland is particularly well-known for its Art Deco architecture, which is one of the major reasons why we are eager to save it.  It's the first amusement park to have its attractions visually integrated by a uniform colonnade and a consistent architectural style, and it still looks today basically the way it did in the late 1920s.

From the beginning, Playland was tremendously popular.  Visitors came from as far away as California, Florida and Canada.  The Parks Commission tried hard to make Playland appeal to the middle class, and it was an era of much greater formality.  Women came wearing dresses, heels and hats, and men wore jackets and ties.  The bathhouse accommodated 10,000 people since obviously visitors needed to change before heading to the beach.  In those days, it was completely unacceptable to arrive at the beach already wearing bathing suits.  In fact, the bathhouse was designed for beachgoers to exit below the boardwalk level so they couldn't be seen in their bathing suits by other park visitors.  When Playland opened, proper decorum required that bathing suits cover much of the body.  Here's a great example of the fashionable beach-goers of the 1920's.

Playland Lake is one of the gems created when Playland was built.  It was largely a swamp and salt marsh with a tidal inlet running through it.  During the construction of Playland, an 80 acre lake was created and dredged to a depth of 30 feet.  The dredged soil was used to fill the area that became amusement park and parking areas.  Today, the Lake still provides a peaceful haven for visitors to row, paddle and enjoy the many shore birds inhabiting the Edith G. Read Wildlife Sanctuary.

Today, as the County debates the future of Playland, let's pause and consider the important role that Playland has played, not only in the development of amusement parks but in the evolution of our own community.  Playland is woven into the fabric of our community and provides a vivid and lively link to our past.  It has been designated by the U.S. Department of the Interior as a National Historic Landmark because it possesses "exceptional value or quality in illustrating or interpreting the heritage of the United States."    Playland remains a significant part of the heritage of Rye, Westchester County and the U.S., and this heritage must be given a high priority as the County considers Playland's future.